Nuclear reactors approved for U.S. construction for the first time since 1978

Illustration for article titled Nuclear reactors approved for U.S. construction for the first time since 1978

Fukushima may still be reeling from last year's nuclear disaster, but a global interest in nuclear power looks to be on the up and up — even here in the U.S.

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Yesterday, for the first time in over 30 years, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the nod on the construction of two brand new nuclear reactors at Georgia's Plant Vogtle. The approval has been dubbed "the strongest signal yet" that the thirty-year hiatus on nuclear plant construction may finally be coming to an end. Could this be the beginning of a renaissance in nuclear energy production?

Probably not... at least not for now (or, rather, at least not here in the States). In fact, the reactors that were approved yesterday — which, if all goes according to plan, should both be finished by 2017 — are liable to be the last ones built in the U.S. until some time after 2020. Scott Peterson, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, prefers not to call it a "nuclear renaissance," but rather a "first wave" for new reactors; in other words: it will be a while before it becomes clear whether or not the NRC's approval signals a true revival to the nuclear industry.

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The new reactor designs are the first to incorporate passive safety features (i.e. features that require little-to-no human intervention, and do not depend on electricity to operate). Many of these features have been implemented in direct response to "lessons learned" from Fukushima, like water that is automatically released to cool the reactor core in the event of a meltdown.

While there's definitely a strong anti-nuclear voice (at least nine national, state and regional groups intend to challenge the approval in federal court), only one out of the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who voted to give the go ahead on the reactors' construction was concerned enough over safety to vote against the approval.

Truth be told, nuclear's biggest challenges may be economic ones. Demand for electricity in the U.S. has leveled out in recent years, and prices on natural gas — which is also used to generate electricity — are currently low, making natural gas-burning turbines a more affordable option than nuclear power plants.

Read more on Scientific American and NPR.

Top image shows one of the new reactor vessel bottom heads being assembled. Photo by Southern Co.

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DISCUSSION

Corpore Metal

As a child of the Cold War, Chernobyl and TMI, I'm happy to hear about this. On the other hand there are lots of hurdles to get past:

1) It's really the old plants that we have to worry about. And they will be the most expensive to replace or decommission. Any of these could be another TMI or Fukushima waiting to happen, the radiation may not be that bad at all but the public relations could be a disaster.

2) We need to get this country off the military driven fuel cycle. It's possible to have nuclear energy without generating a lot of bomb grade uranium and plutonium. But this will be very, very expensive and require the replacement of many, many plants.

3) For political and security reasons we still don't have a means of reprocessing or recycling spent fuel. This is partially related to point two.

4) We still don't have a facility for long term storage, transmutation or disposal of long term, low level waste.

I'm for a revival of nuclear energy—it generates less green house gases than petrochemicals (Even when we factor in the mining, construction and miscellaneous motor vehicle support.) but, I am also trying to be realistic here. The expenses are going to make this a slow revival.

On the plus side, nuclear technology has changed enormously since 1978, we have learned a thing or two.